leadership dot #3021: kink

The water from the hose I was using to fill my birdbath suddenly stopped flowing. I turned to discover that it had gotten a kink in the hose. A perfectly good hose with one kink stopped everything.

The same is true with your staff: one kink (i.e. a troublesome employee) can halt the efforts of your entire team. As a supervisor, you may be tempted to overlook this temporary disruption and justify in your mind that it isn’t always that way, that sometimes the process flows smoothly, but unless you tend to the issue swiftly, everything else will slow to a trickle.

leadership dot #3017: rum

During a particularly stressful project at work, a colleague gave me a tiny bottle of rum for moral support. The joke was that if it got too bad, I could always pour the rum into my Diet Coke as stress relief. The bottle stayed (discretely) in my office for nearly a decade until I returned it to the giver during a particularly rough patch for him.

I never opened the rum but it was comforting to know that it was there. The same principle applied with pain medicine after my periodontist’s handiwork and with a friend’s pain pills after surgery. Neither of us used more than one pill but it was reassuring to know that we had relief available.

Was it ever so bad that I felt I needed the rum or more drugs? No, but I was glad that I was the one deciding that. People are able to accept hardship when they believe they are able to set the limits of what is tolerable for them.

Whenever possible, give your team a relief valve over which they have jurisdiction. Unlock the thermostat and allow people to regulate the temperature. Provide spontaneous flex days when a mental health break is needed. Create an emergency fund that your staff can borrow from. Let people opt out or leave early without question when they’ve reached a breaking point.

Most people won’t gulp down all the pills in the bottle but the pain will feel less just because the medicine is available to them. Trust your staff enough to give them that control.

leadership dot #3015: answer

A colleague was lamenting that her staff members continually turned to her for answers instead of resolving the problem or making decisions on their own. She provided an example of when an employee came to her with a situation and asked what to do about it. I asked her what reply she gave and she told me her response – followed by a silent moment of recognition.

The supervisor had given the employee the answer to the question and it finally dawned on her that it was no wonder people kept coming to her for answers – because she kept providing them! Instead of telling others what to do, a far more effective strategy in this situation is to reply with a question. Asking “What do you think you should do?” would be a good start.

It’s hard to develop independence and autonomous decision-making without practice. While it may be tempting – and likely much easier — in the short run to reply with the answer, you’ll never get out of that dependence loop if you keep doing so. The next time you’re asked a “how” question, utilize the moment to do some coaching instead of answering. Help your employee think through options and prioritize scenarios. Giving them confidence instead of prescribing responses is far better for everyone in the long term.

leadership dot #3014: gardener

I heard a nugget today that sounds simple but sums up much of what it takes to be an effective supervisor:  “Water your flowers and pull your weeds.”

New supervisors often struggle with one side of the equation. They either spend all of their time on their problem employees and assume their stars will succeed on their own, or they encourage their high-performing staff members and hope the low-performers will come around. Neither is a good solution.

To create a desirable culture and empower your staff, you need to nurture those who show promise and deal with those who don’t – either by coaching them to meet your standards or by letting them go. It’s never easy to fire someone, but if all other avenues have been exhausted, it’s the necessary action for the good of the team. The more you allow them to linger, the more they will choke off the energy of those who would otherwise flower.

Treat your role as a supervisor like that of a dedicated gardener. You’re responsible for tending to everything that grows in your plot.



leadership dot #3009: remote

I’ve been working as an Enumerator for the Census, and I’m sure future dots will have tales of my time in the field. But today, I am struck that while I’ve been working for the organization for five weeks, I have had two hours of in-person training on Day 1 and only one brief call with a human since I began. It gives new meaning to remote work – my entire availability, caseload, results, and pay is conducted through the government-issued iPhone. I speak to no one.

I don’t desire any hand-holding or micromanaging, but one phone call after the first day in the field would have been nice. Even a check-in email that asked if I had any questions would have been welcome. But radio silence. Just work when you want, if you want, for as long as you want – whatever you put into the program on the phone seems to be fine.

If you have remote employees – whether they be permanently remote or just COVID-related — it’s easy to assume that “no news is good news” and that they are being productive on their own. This definitely could be the case. But some small personal contact could pay big dividends in employee morale and loyalty. If you have invested the resources to train someone, you should dedicate equal effort to retaining them.

Don’t be a stranger to your staff and colleagues – no matter where they are located. Pick up the phone.

leadership dot 2998: jargon

This was the actual script of an online training I was required to take in preparation to work for the Census:

Keep in mind that this is orientation training so none of the acronyms, forms or abbreviations mean anything to the person working their way through this module. And, obviously, making a personal property claim isn’t something that is applicable before working (if ever), so going into this much detail at this point in the process makes no sense at all.

It’s tempting to want to cram everything an employee may need to know into the early days of training, but don’t do it. If you make the first days positive, relevant, and engaging, you’ll reap the dividends throughout the whole term of employment.

leadership dot #2996: harder

I’ve noticed that the commercials in the gaming app on my phone are all boasting that the game they are advertising is “harder than it looks.” There are many variations on this theme: “I’ve tried 3333 times and still can’t get it” or “You won’t be able to do this,” as if the temptation is enough for me to want to prove them wrong.

That brand of motivation may work on the competitive spirits, but it turns me off. Why would I want to spend my time on a trivial task that you are telling me up-front is nearly impossible? No thanks. I would be much more inspired to try something that made a difference or that provided a few moments of mindless bliss or could improve my cognitive functioning, etc.

With games, as with everything else, you’ll be much more successful if you understand the different motivations that your people bring to the table. Who is fueled by recognition? Which person needs competition? Who will thrive on a challenge? When do meaning and purpose become the motivators?

Invest the time to know what drives those with whom you work closely – employees, colleagues, partners, vendors or other collaborators. It’s more than ascertaining whether to use the carrot or the stick; it’s refining your message and your incentives to align with deeply personal values to inspire internal motivation as well.

leadership dot #2982: unorthodox

I have been riveted by The Last Dance mini-series about the Chicago Bulls since it serves as both a trip down memory lane and as a playbook on team dynamics. In a segment on the unorthodox Dennis Rodman, the show recounted a time when he asked coach Phil Jackson for a 48-hour leave to go on vacation in Las Vegas. This was during the time the team was practicing and Rodman was expected to be present daily. With the support of Michael Jordan, Jackson allowed Rodman to go.

It was a big risk to let Rodman loose in a city that exacerbates excess and, as feared, he succumbed to the temptations and revelry of Sin City. Jordan had to go retrieve him on Day 3. But Rodman came back to the team with renewed vigor and dedication and became a key factor in pursuing a Bulls championship.

Not many coaches would have let one of their starters take a “vacation” while on contract but Jackson knew that Rodman couldn’t remain boxed in. If he needed to release some energy, best to let him do it off the court instead of on. It was a pivotal decision, and, in retrospect, the right one for the whole team.

There was hesitation to even hire Rodman because of his eccentricities but performance won out. Are you missing out on some great employees because you want them all to look/act/behave in the same way? Or, do you have an equivalent Dennis Rodman on your team – someone who does not exhibit the same restraint or characteristics as your other employees – and, if so, have you made allowances to allow her to shine?

Take a lesson from Phil Jackson and learn what each of your employees needs then try to accommodate it in order to receive their best. You can embrace personality distinctiveness if the talent is behind it.

Photo by Walter Huang

huangweiqing / Walter Huang [1] – Dennis Rodman, 2001

Wikipedia Creative Commons license

leadership dot #2968: folded

One of my favorite visuals to illustrate change is a piece of folded flip chart paper, folded in half six times until it is about the size of an index card. Then, when talking about how the change process works, you can unfold it, one fold at a time, until you get to the final reveal upon which you have written the word “WOW!”

Too many people have the misconception that change occurs only like the last time you unfold – from nothing to WOW — but in reality, it is the work done in those initial five steps that set it up to make an amazing result possible. Without this understanding, people are tempted to quit too early in the process, feeling that they have worked through four steps and have nothing to show for it. Even though what you have in the beginning does not resemble the final output, through the process of making incremental changes a transformation can occur.

Use this simple technique to remind your staff (and yourself) that change rarely happens all at once. You can use the language of “another step of unfolding” as a way to keep things in perspective and keep people motivated to press forward in order to achieve “wow” results.

From this…
to this!

leadership dot #2967: concussion

In the NFL, there is a protocol for what happens when a player has any type of head injury. He is immediately removed from the field, taken to the locker room, examined by an unaffiliated neurologic consultant and, if diagnosed with a concussion, same-day return to play is prohibited. This happens automatically without question, even if it’s the Super Bowl or the player insists that they are “fine.”

A colleague has followed this format and implemented a parallel protocol to ensure staff wellbeing when employees are involved with a traumatic case outcome. Several steps are mandated including peer support, debriefing, and a follow-up meeting. These steps occur without asking – and without debate. A similar process is in place for air traffic controllers after an airline crash, police involved in a fatal shooting and in other high stakes settings.

While in most cases management flexibility is welcomed, in certain situations, prescribing a series of behaviors is actually a gift. Protocols that require wellness interventions allow staff members to receive the help they need without any guilt or shame for requesting it. It removes all the excuses for not accessing what is warranted.

In these stressful times, supervisors should consider instituting a few more “concussion protocols” to address the wellbeing of their staff (and follow them themselves!). For example, if you have worked X days or hours in a row, you must take a day off or if you have not yet been off three consecutive days since COVID began, you must do so by X date.

People feel a lot of pressure to stay in the game. Do yourself and your team a favor and remove the hesitation and stigma of getting off the field.

Thanks, Tiffany!